Imagine a highly respected scholar stumbled on a mysterious, hastily-scribbled letter in the back of a 17th century book in an ancient monastery in the desert outside Jerusalem. The letter was written in a 17th (or perhaps 18th) century hand, but its language indicated the contents came from much, much earlier.
Our professor was just a failed academic at the time — his tenure hadn’t come through. He had a difficult personality, in part due to being from New York, in part to an understandable rage against the Puritan sexual mores of the time. It was the 1950s, and he was perhaps a violently closeted gay man.
So he cannot believe his luck, there in that dusty monastery library. A copy of an ancient manuscript — one his vast training allowed him tentatively to attribute, on stylistic grounds, to the early Christian centuries. And even better, the letter itself contained a quotation from an even earlier source: a substantial section from nothing less than a “Lost Gospel” with heretofore suppressed details about the ministry and personality of Jesus himself! Knock knock, tenure committee!
Our professor took some natural-light photographs of the manuscript and (for reasons that are not entirely clear) put the book back on the shelf. Then he left the library and went back to America.
He showed his slightly grainy black-and-white photographs to some academic friends, who agreed the handwriting appeared to be from the 18th century. He studied the language of the letter and was able to attribute it to Clement of Alexandria, a well-known bishop and Church Father who wrote around the year 200 — and, as luck would have it, a prolific letter writer, thousands of words of whose actual letters were readily available for comparison.
Our professor then . . . waited 20 years. That’s right. He established impressive credentials as an award-winning historian of Ancient Palestine, a tenured Columbia professor, textbook author, and belligerent jerk. Recapturing the precious manuscript seemed bizarrely unimportant to him. It remains missing and was never subject to the only real means of authenticating genuineness: microscopic physical examination of the paper, ink and handwriting.
Then, in the mid-1970s, safely tenured, he published two books on the manuscript he’d found back in 1958. Controversy greeted them, but nobody seemed to want to say the obvious. The “Gospel” was taken seriously, the “Letter” included in a standard edition of Clement’s works.
The professor’s first defense was a bulky, densely-footnoted, academically intimidating discussion put out by Harvard University Press. The second is a brief, lively book I’ve just finished called The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, reissued recently by a religious cult in California. The author (our professor): Morton Smith.
Well, well. The fact that this “Secret Gospel” was taken so seriously for so long, and continues to have its advocates, is the best argument I’ve seen lately for the proposition that academics have no common sense.
From beginning to end, Morton Smith’s incendiary discovery reads like a massive middle finger to the academy — an incredible insult so clever, so smart, even bright people are left absolutely speechless.
Morton Smith almost certainly forged the letter and had it “lost” so a physical analysis could not be performed. Then he spent decades writing intricate “defenses” of the letter that were, in fact, little more than pretexts for him to parade unrelated, tangential arguments for his own pet theories.
It’s an incredible story. Better than Holy Blood, Holy Grail. More tomorrow …